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Chesterton’s Defense of Patriotism

Happy Independence Day
pledge of allegience

On all sides we hear to-day of the love of our country, and yet anyone who has literally such a love must be bewildered at the talk, like a man hearing all men say that the moon shines by day and the sun by night. The conviction must come to him at last that these men do not realize what the word ‘love’ means, that they mean by the love of country, not what a mystic might mean by the love of God, but something of what a child might mean by the love of jam. To one who loves his fatherland, for instance, our boasted indifference to the ethics of a national war is mere mysterious gibberism. It is like telling a man that a boy has committed murder, but that he need not mind because it is only his son. Here clearly the word ‘love’ is used unmeaningly. It is the essence of love to be sensitive, it is a part of its doom; and anyone who objects to the one must certainly get rid of the other. This sensitiveness, rising sometimes to an almost morbid sensitiveness, was the mark of all great lovers like Dante and all great patriots like Chatham. ‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’ No doubt if a decent man’s mother took to drink he would share her troubles to the last; but to talk as if he would be in a state of gay indifference as to whether his mother took to drink or not is certainly not the language of men who know the great mystery.

What we really need for the frustration and overthrow of a deaf and raucous Jingoism is a renascence of the love of the native land. When that comes, all shrill cries will cease suddenly. For the first of all the marks of love is seriousness: love will not accept sham bulletins or the empty victory of words. It will always esteem the most candid counsellor the best.

–G. K. Chesterton, “A Defense of Patriotism”

I got into a discussion on Facebook with a friend yesterday about how to teach patriotism to your children, if you want them to understand their country’s crimes and failures as well as its achievements. Here’s what I said:

There’s a question behind the question, and that is what the basis of patriotism should be at all? And it feels to me like that’s only a question because of the size of our political communities.

People feel an attachment, and a willingness to fight to protect, their homes, and their communities. That can take noble and ignoble forms — sometimes fighting to defend your community means committing injustice (as, for example, if you band together with your neighbors to prevent someone from a disfavored ethnic group from moving to the neighborhood). But the feeling is rooted in a direct experience, not an abstract attachment.

For any political community larger than a city, though, that attachment necessarily becomes abstract. So you need to teach your children why they should care about that larger community, be proud of it, and treat it as constituent of their identity.

Chesterton famously quipped that the sentiment, “my country, right or wrong” is like the sentiment, “my mother, drunk or sober.” But the thing about the latter is that she is your mother whether she’s drunk or sober — it’s just that your obligations change based on her condition. If she’s drunk, you won’t let her drive — instead, you’ll make sure she gets home safely.

The question, then, is how you teach your children to see their country as, in some sense, like a mother when their relationship is necessarily abstract rather than directly felt. A love of country based on the lie that your mother is never drunk will be too brittle to survive any kind of honest encounter with reality. But it seems to me equally problematic to say that you should love your country because it is on-balance a good one. Does anyone say about their mother that they love them because on-balance they are sober?

Filial love is first and foremost rooted in gratitude for existence itself. That applies to adopted children as well; we are not born able to fend for ourselves, but radically dependent on others’ love and care, and however imperfectly it was provided if we survived at all then it was provided in some measure. And that gratitude extends to the larger society. None of us were raised in the wilderness; whoever we are, we are because of the world that shaped us, and we are grateful to be ourselves even if we are not always happy being ourselves.

So the central question of how to teach patriotism is not “how do I teach my child that my country is deserving of love when it has done terrible things” but “how do I teach my child that they owe a debt to an entity as abstract as their country, and that in the fullness of time they will discharge that debt by taking responsibility for its well-being.”

Anyway, that’s what prompted me to look up the larger context of the Chesterton quote. Appropriate for every season, sadly only more appropriate as time goes on.

Happy Independence Day.